In my last post, I talked about my first visit to the new Kabuki-za, a few weeks back. The show that night was Yotsuya Kaidan, probably the most widely known ghost story in kabuki, featuring the wronged wife Oiwa. This was, if I remember correctly, my first time seeing a tôshi kyôgen (“going through the [whole] play”). Usually, only certain select scenes are performed, combined with scenes from other plays to form an evening’s program. So, I went into the theatre that night not realizing the program was roughly four and a half hours long (including several intermissions). But, it was fine, because the program was excellent.
Above: A woodblock print depicting Oiwa and her baby, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1836), featuring Onoe Kikugorô III in the role, ten years after he appeared in that role in the premiere.
Since it was a tôshi kyôgen, there was plenty of plot, and more than enough characters for me to become thoroughly confused. For those interested in the fuller plot, you can check out the wonderfully thorough description on Kabuki21.com. According to the description there, the play usually includes a section in which a stage guard comes onstage, between scenes, and explains who is playing each role, who each role is, and their relationships to one another. I sure could have used such an explanation.
But, basically here’s the key bits: Oiwa has a baby with her husband Iemon, but Iemon’s basically a bad guy, and he hates his marriage. And there’s a Naosuke, and a Kohei, and an Osode, and I’m really not sure how they all fit in… But, Oiwa, and/or the baby, are kind of ill, and need some medicine. Then the Itô family, who figures into this somehow (I think Iemon is in love with their daughter?), gives Oiwa some horrible poison, telling her it’s medicine. And, so, long story short, she gets horribly disfigured, and then accidentally kills herself and becomes a vengeful ghost, and that’s where the shit really hits the fan.
Yikes. That’s terribly unfortunate. This is what happens when you take poisons thinking it’s medicine. (Image thanks to I Can Haz Cheeseburger.)
Okay. So, the first few acts, I’m sorry to say, did sort of feel like they dragged on. As with basically all things in traditional Japanese arts, kabuki follows the form of jo-ha-kyû – a slow build-up (jo), a break (ha), and then a rapid and dramatic conclusion (kyû). I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the earlier parts of the play – if one claims to appreciate the art, or aims to appreciate the art, then one must strive to appreciate more of it, more facets, and on deeper levels. Such as the skillful acting, and the restrained emotional scenes. But, I just have to say, more so than perhaps any other play that I’ve seen, in this play, wow but the kyû is amazing.
That said, throughout the play, including in the earlier sections, there were some great action scenes, the costumes were beautiful of course, and the sets incredible as well. While many kabuki plays use rather colorful, bright, clean-looking sets, Yotsuya Kaidan was acclaimed even in its own time, for its relatively realistic, down-to-earth depiction of a dirty, run-down, low class home. The shôji is stained, and poked through with holes in some places; and the lantern’s run out of oil. It could not be more perfect for such an emotional, such a tragic story. And such a creepy, frightening ghost story, too. But we’ll get back to that.
A model of the stage set for the final scene at a temple retreat. This isn’t quite the same set (or scene) as Iemon & Oiwa’s rundown house, but it gives the impression, I hope, of the aesthetic of the show.
Returning to my not-so-step-by-step run through of the play, we come to Oiwa’s transformation scene, after taking the “medicine,” that is, the poison given her by the scheming Itô family. I was surprised at how long the transformation took, but, I keep rethinking about it, because this drawing-out, combined with a near absence of music or percussion, also allowed the emotion, and the tragedy, of the scene to really just hang there in the air for a long drawn out moment. I have heard on numerous occasions, including from my own kabuki choreography/dance teacher, as well as in reading an interview with the late Danjûrô himself, that it is in the pauses that so much actually comes through, and is conveyed. And, so, as Oiwa very slowly, gradually, begins to feel the effects of the poison, the actor, and the audience, are given ample time to really focus in on the complex emotional tenor of the scene – Oiwa’s hope that this medicine will make things better, her love for her child, her frustration and sadness at her baby’s unhappiness or discomfort, and at her own situation, living in this run-down house with an abusive husband; we see as she begins to feel strange, and to worry about what the medicine is doing to her, before she finally retreats into the back room, the drums booming, raising the tension and foreshadowing what is to come.
Right: ©Nihonhaiyukyokai/Aoki Shinji, from web-japan.org.
Her husband returns home, and Oiwa emerges from the back room carrying her child, and clutching her face. She eventually lets down the handkerchief, and he sees her disfigured visage. Iemon leaves, taking basically everything of value – that means, chiefly, all Oiwa’s kimono, and even the baby’s swaddling wrap. Oiwa still doesn’t know exactly what’s happened to her… and, when the servant finally offers her a mirror, she realizes what has happened, realizes the Itô family has betrayed her, and in another famous and very sad, tragic scene, she tries to comb over her hair to make herself presentable, to go visit the Itô house and confront them. Sad, and tragic, because of the impossibility of the act, her appearance having been so disfigured by the poison. The hair comes out in clumps, and blood drips onto the floor. In the process of combing out her hair, too, of course, she lets it down; this, combined with her increasingly angry, vengeful disposition, have taking on even more so the appearance of the ghost, even before she accidentally kills herself, slicing her throat on a blade that somehow became lodged in one of the pillars of the house earlier.
In the next scene, Iemon meets with the Itô family, and is tricked by the ghost into killing several of them… the scene ends dramatically with green flame and ghostly hands reaching out towards him. I actually was using my opera glasses at that moment, to look more closely at some secondary thing happening on the other end of the stage – my sensei, thankfully, poked me, and when I saw the green will-o’-wisps, wow… this is really a ghost play!
Kabuki normally takes a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief. It takes place in a different aesthetic world, and you just have to go with it, and immerse yourself into it, and not get hung up on the absurdity or unfamiliarity of the costumes or speech patterns. In a way, it’s actually kind of like watching cartoons – you need to put aside how colorful they are, how unrealistically they’re drawn, and indeed the idea that they’re drawn at all, and just take them as characters, as people, connecting to their emotions, and to the world and the plot, the storyline they live in. Yotsuya Kaidan is not your typical kabuki, though. I came into it thinking, okay, sure, it’s a ghost play, but I’ve seen fox plays and god plays and samurai plays, and they were all more or less the same – this one will be too. No. With Yotsuya Kaidan, as a ghost play, as a horror story, they do it up right. At various points in the play, with all the lights out, the only light in the entire theatre being a few lanterns on stage, and the set being the dingy, sketchy, creepy setting that it was, I must admit I was never truly, actually scared, per se, but, you could absolutely sense the atmosphere they were creating, the creepy atmosphere, that sends chills down your spine – chills, which is precisely what you want during the heat of summer, which is why most of the greatest ghost plays take place during summer, and are performed in the summer.
There is another intervening scene at the riverbank, which I am assured is especially famous, and contains some really famous & popular moments, including a skillful hayagawari (quick-change) as a single actor transforms from the role (and hair and costume and face) of Oiwa into that of Kohei in mere moments. But, it is after that scene, finally, during the kyû, that all hell really breaks loose. If they’d shown just these scenes (and maybe the transformation scene through Oiwa’s accidental death to lead into it) at the National Theatre, what a brilliant, captivating introduction to kabuki that would have been!
Iemon seeks refuge at a temple. As he lights a small lantern to light his way, a large one behind him starts to glow, brighter and brighter until it bursts into flames – yes, full actual flames on stage – destroying the lantern, and revealing the ghost of Oiwa, who flies out of it at him. I can’t remember precisely how each step of this final scene goes, as the Kabuki21 summary isn’t quite that detailed, and as the classic 1956 version I’ve been looking at on YouTube to refresh my memory cuts out this entire last scene. But, suffice it to say there are some incredible moments, as the ghost reaches out from behind the wall, through a scroll hanging inside the temple, to grab one of the devotees and pull him through the wall, into darkness, where he is never seen again. A group of people rush into the temple, fleeing something outside (perhaps, the ghost herself), but once they are inside, Oiwa steps out from amongst them – she was truly hidden, I nearly jumped when she appeared from behind that group – and flies around the room. The people huddle together, and try to form a circle to protect themselves, but she swoops down and grabs one of them, tossing him too into the darkness.
From that same model/display at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. A mirror reveals bits backstage, showing how the various special effects (keren) are accomplished. Frankly, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were trying to show, but, maybe you can, and then you can explain it to me in the comments. ;)
And so Oiwa’s tragic tale ends. She gets her revenge, killing Iemon and several others, while the rest of her betrayers (the Itô family) are all killed by Iemon himself – the synopsis on Kabuki21 says the ghosts trick Iemon into doing it, but I like the possibility, too, that Iemon himself is so wracked by his guilt, that he is, in a sense, tormented by his own demons, in the figurative sense of the term, seeing Oiwa and Kohei, whose deaths he caused, everywhere he looks, and so when he lashes out against these demons, these spectres, these visions from his own imagination, he ends up killing those he loves, and destroying everything the schemes were meant to create for him.
I’m hoping to see some more kabuki before the end of the summer, as I leave Japan in just a few weeks, but I suppose we shall have to see how things work out…